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  • Writer's pictureDwight Anderson

1896 Ray Plate Camera - Mutschler Robertson & Co.

Updated: Mar 11, 2023

Taking pictures with a 125-year-old camera is fun... and nerve-wracking.

Beautiful wooden plate holders inside a plain brown box

"Is the sun behind us?" "I forgot to take the darkslide out!" "How long is a third of a second?"

When I started thinking about creating a blog, I wondered about what camera to write about first. But that was pretty easy; just start with the oldest one I have. But not so easy, as the oldest one takes glass plate negatives. I was planning on cutting sheet film and trying to load it with spacers in the wooden plate holders, but recently I found out about J. Lane Dry plates. After inquiring about a custom 3.5"x3.5" plate size, I ordered a box of "Speed Plates" ASA 25 and within a week I had them in hand.

The top opens to reveal one holder ready to shoot, and storage for two more

The Ray Camera was made by Mutschler and Robertson in 1896. I have an early version that has only one aperture and a round viewfinder. The 1897 models were upgraded with metal plate holders, 3 apertures, and a square viewfinder. You can find scans of the 1897 instructions and 1898 and 1899 brochures at Pacific Rim Camera. They make fascinating reading about taking photos 125 years ago.

Turn the large knob to set the shutter, then push the small one to take the shot

The camera takes 3.5" square glass plates held in three wooden holders, allowing for six photos before heading back to the darkroom. It has a single element meniscus lens, which measures 102mm from the plate to the back of the lens. The aperture is 8mm, so the approximate f-stop is 13. I estimated the shutter speed is about 1/30, so with an emulsion speed of 25, the "Sunny Sixteen" rule works pretty well.

I took the camera to a local riverside park and a dam on the Mississippi near us. Using a tripod with a pan head made leveling easy. Using a light meter app on my phone gave me some idea of exposure times. My wife helped with composition and even did a little modeling. The dry plates are made with an emulsion that would have been used in the 1890s, so it is not sensitive to red light, and the plates can be loaded and developed with a red darkroom safelight. This means that the sky becomes very light, and reds are dark, so the photos can be high contrast. I scanned the plates with an old flatbed scanner that isn't as wide as the plates, so I decided on displaying them in portrait.

A soft emulsion means it's easy to get dust and smudges when tray processing.

The camera is fun to use and attracts a few looks from other photographers. The shutter is first tensioned by rotating the larger unmarked knob. The smaller knob is marked with an I and a T for Instant and Time exposures. Pushing the small knob trips the rotating disc shutter for an Instant (1/30) exposure. Turning the knob from I to T moves a lever that holds the shutter open on the first push and closes it again on the second push.

Simple rotating shutter disc, with the manufacturer's name stamped in the wood

After you've set the shutter and locked the tripod, you turn your attention to the plates. We had loaded the plates in the darkroom and put them in the camera before we set out. So for the first shot, we just had to open the top, pull the dark slide and press the shutter button. Then replace the slide with the black trim facing outward to indicate it is exposed, pull the holder out of the spring tabs holding it in place, and turn it around. After the second shot, replace it with the other holders held in the back of the camera. This all sounds simple, but the first time out, it was pretty nerve-wracking. The shot with my wife was supposed to be about 1/3 sec., but I forgot to turn the shutter release to T. Luckily, I forgot to remove the dark slide, so I got a second chance to take a time exposure. Making the time exposures was just guessing, just saying "open, close" to myself at different speeds.

Later in the afternoon, exposure was an estimated 1/3 second

The images came out as well as I could have hoped for, although there's room for improvement in my darkroom procedures. The meniscus lens is soft around the outside as expected, and the foreground and background have a very painterly look. I was expecting the lens to be set at a hyperfocal distance, but the far backgrounds are slightly out of focus as well. Interestingly, the photos in the brochures linked above have the same look, including the flaws from light leaks and processing. Also, the prose in those brochures is delightful.

Shooting in the shadows against the sun required a 1/2 second exposure and caused some lens flare

Would I shoot this camera again? Absolutely, as I still have four more plates in the box. Also, I need to get rid of the flaws I introduced while developing. And learn how to scan better.

But really, it's a lot of fun to take pictures with such a deliberative process, even with its limitations. And the results have a beautiful look that's unique to photos taken 125 years ago.

A full set of plates are in the gallery below, click for full size:

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